Behind The Scenes

This year’s Design Automation Conference should prove far more interesting than just what’s on the agenda or in the exhibit hall.

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This year’s DAC should be one of the more interesting shows in several years, although not for the usual reasons.

As an industry, we are just emerging from one of the worst downturns in decades. It started in December 2007, and various segments of the overall economy will begin picking up at different times, depending upon whether they’re leading indicators or trailing indicators. Netbooks and cell phones are selling well. Automotive electronics continues to suffer badly. And computers are recovering, although at much lower price points than in the past.

In the case of system-level design tools, there should be a very strong demand for the best in class and those with the best integration story. New chips are far more complicated to build than in the past, which means engineers need better tools for modeling, interfaces and DFM to ensure the chips can actually be manufactured.

Missing a market window at 45nm is expensive. At 32nm it can force a company to sell off some of its assets. And at 22nm, it actually can kill a company.

Feeding into this demand for tools is the fact that most chipmakers are short on staff. Companies cut engineering jobs during the downturn, and most will try to get through the short term hiring as little full-time help as possible. That means more focus on high-level abstractions and modeling, and more contract labor at the end of the design cycle when last-minute changes are necessary to hit a market window. The big question there is whether that contract labor will be up to speed on the newest tools and methods to be able to work as effectively as in the past.

This is a pivotal time in chip design, and system-level design tools are an integral part of this transition. But so are shifts in the job market for engineers, new skill requirements and globalization. That means lots of griping, lots of uncertainty and lots of questions—and right now it doesn’t appear there will be enough answers to satisfy most people.

So if you’re attending DAC, check out what’s happening on the show floor and in the conference rooms. But make sure to listen to what’s being talked about in the hallways. That may be where the really interesting stuff happens.

–Ed Sperling